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Forever Words: The Unknown Poems by Johnny Cash

Forever Words:
The Unknown Poems

Johnny Cash (blue rider press 2016, Trade Paperback) 132 pages, illustrated

It is a tricky business, reading or reviewing a songwriter as a poet. I'm quite sure that I'm not at all alone in admitting to having bought some paperback edition of the collected lyrics of Lennon & McCartney, Pete Townshend, Bowie, Dylan, Brian Wilson, even Sting. (I have no idea what was in my head when I bought Songs by Sting but I'm pretty sure it used to be a plant before both it and my appreciation for the words of Gordon Sumner both went up in smoke.) Generally speaking one's reaction falls on a narrow scale ranging between mild chuckles of amusement and small sighs of slight disappointment. Of course, there's also Leonard Cohen, however he's just a big cheat having been a highly acclaimed and successful poet, living one of the rare lives where those two words actually go together, before picking up a guitar and taking a turn for the verse.
We will get to the exceptions that prove the rule, so have no fear about that. First of all though we need to look at the question of just why it is that someone who is a brilliant composer and lyricist seems diminished when the words are naked without a cloak of music? The facile answer is that we're a bit lost without the instruments, or even frustrated at making our memory do all the work of imagining the notes in their proper place; wait, was there an oboe there or not? That though is only part of the story.
Poetry is by its very nature metric. That does not mean it all has to have the clippy-CLOP clippy-Clop clippy-clippy-CLOP-CLOP-ClOP rhythm of either a dancing cart horse or, um, William Shakespeare. Even the freest of free verse has a decided and deliberate flow falls trippingly on the tongue. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the pauses implied by commas, semi-colons, colons and periods can do a an acceptable enough job of reading aloud any significant poem ever written. With a song however, that job is left to the music. In a symphony, the conductor commands the musicians whereas in a song, the music conducts the words. Want an example? Of course you do. With the absence of music I defy anyone to read aloud John Lennon's Beatles-period lyric to I Am the Walrus without sounding like a complete twat. Try it now and let's both of us hope that the kids are in the room as they'll dine out on this story from now until your funeral:
I am he as you are he as you are me
And we are all together
See how they run like pigs from a gun
See how they fly
I'm crying
Sitting on a cornflake
Waiting for the van to come
Corporation T-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday
Man you've been a naughty boy
You let your face grow long
I am the eggman
They are the eggmen
I am the walrus
Goo goo g' joob
You started singing, now didn't you? That's perfectly all right; those are lines that were meant to be sung not spoken. Left on their own, Lennon's lyrics seem nearly as random as those of David Bowie who famously used to cut the lines into strips and then scatter them into utterly random arrangements.
But. As I said earlier, there are exceptions. We could go on about this for another two thousand words but I do want to get down to the business of discussing the late Johnny Cash's Forever Words. One important subset of lyrics that do bear reading and speaking are those with a narrative structure, in short, ballads. Here are two examples. The first is an excerpt from Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land:
This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
Second, let's look at the first two verses of one of Guthrie's disciples, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited:
Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What ?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done ?"
God says. "Out on Highway 61".

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there's only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.
Whether or not there are other characters in the verses (Guthrie no, Dylan yes), each of these two classic songs are stories of travel and finding safety along with a higher purpose by traveling. These are words you can read aloud and feel comfortable while doing so. Here are some more such words:

I heard on the news
That there is a lull in the fighting
In Vietnam
Because so many Vietnamese
Are busy planting
A rice crop again.
The report said
That full scale fighting
Is expected to resume
Immediately after the planting season.
I reply:
What kind of animal is man
That he would pause in his killing
To go about the business
Of preparing for the living
That he will immediately return
To the business of killing?

That is the complete text of Johnny Cash's poem I Heard on the News written in the early 1970s. I've chosen it to discuss here as it is indisputably a poem as opposed to a lyric in progress, it has the strong moral message that defines Cash's best work, and furthermore contains its author's often sardonic wit. The unnamed narrator (we can assume that is Cash himself) not only sees the farcical irony in calling time-out on a war just long enough to make sure the troops are well-fed before they resume killing one another. More than that though, not that 'I reply' near the poem's middle. To whom is the rest of the poem then addressed? Is Cash speaking to the unhearing radio or television, God, or both? If I might hazard a guess, I'd say it is Cash speaking to God. 'Reply' is such a formal word to choose, with the implication present that the author viewed this news from Vietnam as a direct message from a superior that demanded a response. It is notable that what we would today see as an email chain ends there. No further message is needed from God as Johnny Cash got the meaning of that scene in the rice paddies and his mission now was to spread it to us through his poems, lyrics and songs.
It must have been an extraordinarily difficult task for the late legend's son John Carter Cash and Forever Words' editor Paul Muldoon to choose the forty-one poems presented in this book, drawn from quite literally a lifetime's worth of notebooks and carefully saved sheets of paper, complete with the occasional coffee cup ring and pencil markings showing where lines should be transposed. Muldoon mentions in the Introduction that the last thing he and John Carter Cash wanted to do was to in any way exploit the memory of the latter's father. Muldoon mentions how disservice has been paid to the legacy of Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin and T.S. Eliot by their estates in releasing for posthumous publication works that the poets themselves did not see fit for public reading during their lives.
I sincerely believe that they have nothing to fear. Johnny Cash was truly beloved by millions and I am proud to include myself in that number. Indeed, I was tickled pink when I discovered we share the same birthday, although I suspect that Cash himself was probably much less taken with astrology than I am. I digress. Much more to the point is that by the end of Forever Words I truly felt that I had gained as much or more insight into Cash's character as would be gained by reading a 600 page biography.
So who was he, who was the man inside The Man in Black? He was, let's be both fair and accurate here, a genius who could express incredibly complex thoughts in simple terms. (Think that's easy? Try it sometime.) For instance, many oh so many poets have bashed on at vast length regarding their own immortality or lack thereof. Here is Johnny Cash's take on it, the elegantly simple verse called Forever:

You tell me that I must perish
Like the flowers that I cherish
Nothing remaining of my name
Nothing remembered of my fame
But the trees that I planted
Still are young
The songs I sang
Will still be sung

Johnny Cash was of Scots-Irish ancestry which is interesting within the context of Forever as it quite parallels the Scottish poet William Knox's (1789-1825) poem Mortality. In particular I draw your attention to this verse:
So the multitude goes, like the flower and the weed
That wither away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that hath often been told. 

But let us not be mistaken in thinking that Johnny Cash was all work and no play! To do so would damn the Irish blood within him and no one needs that. No, the man who wrote A Boy Named Sue could be rude and saucy and hearty with the laughs. I refer you to the splendid seduction of a rich girl by a poor boy in The Captain's Daughter with verses ending in either 'no no no no' or 'ho ho ho ho'; or the grumpy warning to his heirs Don't Make a Movie About Me. Why not? Well ...

They'll need a research team from Uncle Sam
And go from David Allen Coe to Billy Graham
It would run ten days in the final cut
And that would mean leaving out the gossip smut.

Yeah, there was a bit of the Irish to Johnny Cash for sure now.
I urge you to buy and enjoy Forever Words. At times you'll be sure that you can hear that familiar chunka-la-chunk guitar rhythm, but even if not, even if you were never a fan of Johnny Cash's music, you will quite love him as a writer. He wrote pure, he wrote strong, he wrote honestly from a great and feeling heart. Like all great artists, he saved his best for the encore.

Be seeing you.


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